Though largely forgotten today, there is a substantive history of mutual support and solidarity between black and Palestinian freedom fighters. In light of recent controversies in the United States and Palestine, cohesive social activism has been reinvigorated, and there exists renewed potential for unity between African Americans and Palestinians as a means of mutually achieving liberation.
The summer of 2014 was a period of “divisiveness” when tensions that had long been brewing finally demanded notice. Newsreels vacillated from footage of protests on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to wreckage of the besieged Gaza strip.
Though the Ferguson protests and Gaza War accentuated existing social rifts, neither conflict manufactured monolithic fractures along black and white or Palestinian and Israeli lines. Rather, the divide which emerged, in both cases, was that of the oppressed and their allies against the oppressor and the indifferent. This generalized dichotomy allowed for the emergence of a rekindled solidarity between African Americans and Palestinians, one that had been dormant for decades.
When placed in global context, the historic and enduring African American struggle for freedom in the American South has been more than an attempt to acquire the privileges afforded white Americans. Rather, it is an ongoing battle against the global systems of European imperialism and white supremacy founded upon oppressed black and brown labor.
In the spirit of pursuing transnational solidarity with historically oppressed peoples, prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement initially supported the creation of the state of Israel. As Israel came to fruition, however, the symbol of an idyllic Jewish homeland was far removed from the settler-colonialist reality of the Zionist state.
Not only did Israel directly engage in settler-colonialism through the massacre, exile, and imposition of apartheid upon indigenous Palestinians, but the state also contributed to imperialism abroad by supporting the French colonial regime during the Algerian War for Independence, opposing anti-colonial revolutionary Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and continuing support of Apartheid South Africa amidst international outcry.
As a result of this domestic and international campaign of imperialist reinforcement, Israel’s “fall from grace was very powerful,” in the eyes of many African American activists and intellectuals such as James Baldwin, who lambasted Israel as being a “state created for the purpose of protecting Western interests.”
As tensions between black freedom fighters and Israel escalated, a sense of comradery developed between African American and Palestinian activists. In 1967, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee became the first black liberation organization to break with liberal norms by issuing a proclamation affirming “unreserved support for the self-determination of the Palestinian people.” Meanwhile, Palestinians displayed their solidarity with civil rights activists such as former political prisoner Angela Davis who “received support from Palestinian political prisoners as well as from Israeli attorneys defending Palestinians” during her incarceration.
The most substantial relationship between these marginalized peoples was that between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Black Panthers, whose leaders Yasser Arafat and Huey P. Newton emphasized “the great similarity between the conditions under which the black people live in the U.S. and those under which the Palestinian Arabs live in Israel.”
After 1980, however, the Palestinian-African American relationship dissipated with the waning momentum of each movement. In the wake of FBI crackdowns on black liberation efforts and global indifference towards an ever-shrinking and fractionated Palestine, both groups refocused their efforts on maintaining their endangered communities rather than bolstering support abroad.
Contemporary Symmetry of Struggle
Looking retrospectively, it has become increasingly clear that the civil rights and anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s and 1970s changed laws, not institutions. In post-Civil Rights Act America, institutional racism has largely proliferated through the prison industrial complex. African Americans comprise “2.3 million, or 34% of the total 6.8 million correctional population,” a fact which is emblematic of a system designed to disproportionally target African Americans through racial profiling, disparities in drug sentencing, and, more fundamentally, a refusal to address inequalities in opportunities faced by African Americans.
Meanwhile, in occupied Palestine, active Palestinian expulsion has been supplanted with gradual encroachment on Palestinian land. Palestine has effectively been rendered a prison by the institution of checkpoints for travel within Palestinian territory, the erection of a border wall partitioning the region, and the Israeli Defense Force’s brutal military occupation. Furthermore, Israel boasts an impressive prison industrial complex of its own, which oversees the routine torture and systematic abuse of 7,000 imprisoned Palestinians.
Thus, the contemporary connection between African Americans and occupied Palestinians tangibly supports the underlying imperialist connection, as African Americans and Palestinians effectively live in the same state—the carceral state.
African Americans and Palestinians are united, not only by their physical mistreatment at the hands of their oppressors, but also by the narratives used to justify this persecution.
As they traditionally pride themselves on the defining principles of democracy and decency, Western nations must be creative any time they implement undemocratic or indecent practices. The United States and Israel have taken this challenge in stride, instituting a circumlocutory approach to the autocratic traditions of criminalizing resistance and vilifying victims. These nations have developed a nuanced system of coded language in regard to African Americans and Palestinians, employing Freudian free association to instill negative cultural biases that permeate so deeply as to portray the mere existence of these peoples as a threat to the security of sacred Western institutions.
In the United States, “law and order” has become the rhetoric for racism in a color-blind world, while Israel’s “right to defend itself” renders no action unwarranted—regardless the extremity. Meanwhile, traditional racial slurs have been traded in for “thug” and “terrorist” as reductive synonyms for African Americans and Palestinians, respectively. Thus, their efforts at liberation are rebranded as destruction, and public focus shifts from structural violence perpetrated by unjust regimes to their victims’ attempts at self-preservation. Acts of self-defense are portrayed as unprovoked aggressions—a narrative which blatantly neglects the looming provocation that is systemic oppression.
From Ferguson to Palestine
Beyond coincidental timing, the parallels between the Ferguson protests and the Gaza War involved a complex verisimilitude of police brutality, hyper-militarized reactions, and media misrepresentation.
The Gaza War began after Israel falsely accused Hamas—the effective government of the Gaza Strip—of being responsible for the killings of three Israeli teenagers. Consequently, Israel engaged in a bombing rampage against Gaza, illegally targeting residential areas, schools, and hospitals. In total, over 2,100 Palestinians were killed during the course of the 50-day war, while only 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians were killed. Media reports of the conflict were preoccupied with Israel’s right to defend itself against makeshift rockets, rather than its disproportionate response that decimated the Gaza strip.
Meanwhile, protests in Ferguson were instigated by the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in a city rife with racial discrimination by law enforcement. Once again, the media became fixated on the sparse acts of violence committed by protestors and were quick to rebrand the protests as riots.
During the course of the Ferguson protests, further outrage was sparked by the highly militarized police response, typified by armored vehicles, riot gear, rifles, and tear gas. Inspired by similarity of circumstance, Palestinians extended support and advice to Ferguson.
“The Palestinian people know what [it] mean[s] to be shot while unarmed because of your ethnicity,” one Palestinian wrote, referencing the long history of unwarranted IDF brutality against Palestinian civilians.
In the ensuing weeks, Palestinian flags waved in the streets of Ferguson and messages of solidarity were written on the West Bank Wall. The displays of unity continued beyond the summer, and in 2015, over one thousand individuals and 39 organizations signed a “Black Solidarity Statement with Palestine.” Later that year, a movement entitled “When I see them, I see us,” was mounted expressly to emphasize the parallels between African Americans and Palestinians in the occupied territories.
In 2016, Black Lives Matter faced backlash for its official platform, the Israeli “genocide” of Palestinians. Despite losing support from many organizations which had previously endorsed the movement, Black Lives Matter remained steadfast in their support for Palestine and their commitment to advocating for universal justice, even when doing so was dangerous to their own movement.
Moving Forward: A Call to the Past
Dr. Martin Luther King’s assertion that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” though intended as an incisive characterization of sympathy, community, and the human condition, is more concretely a testament to historic, global injustice wrought by European imperialism. Though this inherent linkage in global injustices has long been neglected, African Americans and Palestinians have finally rediscovered solace and strength in their mutual empathy, and those who value justice as a principle, not merely a façade, cannot afford to let this transnational unity dissipate once more.
If united we stand and divided we fall, then solidarity is the only way we rise.